Old Issues of the ‘The Sporting News’ Provides a Nostalgia Blitz

When I think back to that short stretch of time when I was a kid, my school days pretty much run together, and my summers are big blurs of baseball cards, Little League, sandlot ball and constant treks around town on a banana-seat bike. But Sunday mornings were different. Our family had a routine for years – one I can still watch in my mind.

Sundays usually unfolded the same way week after week. They started with breakfast and then a scramble by my five siblings and me to get ready for church. My dad and mom would then herd all of us into the family station wagon and off we’d go. Afterward, we’d head home. On the way, we’d stop at a newsstand, where my dad would buy not one, not two, but several newspapers – local and “imported” major city newspapers, as well as smaller regional ones.

Best of all, he’d also buy The Sporting News (TSN). And really, was there a better bang for the sports fan’s buck (actually, 50 cents) than The Sporting News in the 1970s?

The venerable publication is still around (it’s now known as Sporting News, without the “The”), but I admit I don’t read it as regularly and religiously as I used to. Back in the day, though, it accounted for a big slice of Sunday-morning reading time.

I remember TSN in the 1970s as being jam-packed with stats, transactions, game recaps, opinion pieces and in-depth features by top writers. Every issue carried reports on every baseball team, so you could always count on tidbits about your favorite franchise.
All of it made you want to keep every issue – which I did. In fact, I’ve never been able to throw them away. Instead, I’ve been adding to my stash, working backward into the 1960s.

Issues of TSN from the mid-1960s through the late 1970s tend to sell for $10-$25, although certain cover subjects can send the price to $40, $50 or even more. Early 1960s issues can get into that range, too. In fact, issues from late in the 1961 season that document Roger Maris’ home run chase sell for $100-$150. Prices for pre-1960s issues can be all over the map, from $25 up to a few hundred dollars, with the more important news stories commanding bigger bucks.

I’ll get around to collecting early 20th-century issues later on. For now, I’ll stick with 1960s and ’70s issues. I’ll tell you about a few recent finds in a moment; first, here’s a quick primer on TSN history.

Getting started
The Sporting News began life some 125 years ago, in 1886. Al Spink, an executive for baseball’s St. Louis Browns, was 31 when he launched the 17-by-22-inch newspaper, which cost readers a nickel. Early on, the content reflected Spink’s interest in billiards, boxing, cycling and even theater, but his younger brother Charles, who joined the team in 1887, steered it heavily into baseball, especially after Al left in 1899 to pursue other interests.

As our national pastime grew behind the exploits of Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and other stars, so, too, did The Sporting News, particularly behind the leadership of J.G. Taylor Spink. TSN’s publisher from 1914 until his death in 1962, Taylor Spink was so highly esteemed that the Baseball Writers Association of America would institute the J.G. Taylor Spink Award the year he died.

Early issues of TSN look like what you’d expect of 19th-century publications: Text-heavy newspapers. Artwork included sketches or drawings of players, but as TSN evolved, photographs worked their way in.

By the time I discovered TSN, it was sporting full-color photographs of athletes on the cover. But it was the content that mattered most, especially the box scores. Where else could you get every box score of the baseball, football, basketball and hockey seasons? Newspapers missed a lot of them, especially those from West Coast games. TSN allowed you to catch up. So I would do just that, every week – and it made Sunday mornings an event.

While I’ve kept my original TSN stash safe and relatively sound, I’ve found myself picking up issues that are slightly older. It started, to be honest, with a search for Ozzie Sweet cover photographs (see the Dec. 30 issue of SCD). I found a few but also started picking up 1960s editions with Packers and/or Yankees covers and have also been drawn to covers featuring other iconic players I admired as a kid. Let’s take a look at the kinds of things you’ll find in back issues.

The Iron-Fisted Lombardi: One issue that caught my eye was the Dec. 16, 1967, TSN, which featured a fist-pumping Vince Lombardi on the cover. The lead story, written by Chuck Johnson, captured Lombardi’s demanding nature, which is reflected in this quote by defensive tackle Jordan: “When Coach Lombardi says ‘Sit down,’ I don’t even look for a chair.”

Jordan also told TSN, “Coach Lombardi is very fair. He treats us all the same – like dogs.” It worked; the Packers won four championships under Lombardi through December 1967 and – after a 9-2-1 season in 1967 – were on their way to another.

In that same issue, TSN selected its 1967 All-America Football Team. Among those who went on to notable NFL careers: Offensive linemen Curley Culp (who would switch to defense for the Kansas City Chiefs) and Ron Yary and running backs Larry Csonka and O.J. Simpson. The All-American quarterback was Gary Beban, a “can’t-miss” prospect who, er, ended up missing. TSN quoted NFL great Bob Waterfield as saying, “Gary is a cinch to be a pro star.” (In his one-year NFL career, Beban would throw a single pass, an incompletion.)

Big news in pro basketball that week included Willis Reed’s move from forward to center. It opened up more playing time for rookie forward Phil Jackson, “a wide-shouldered, gangling young man from North Dakota.” Yep, that’s the same Jackson who would set the all-time NBA record for wins by a head coach.

Baseball’s hot stove league in 1967 was dominated by talk that the “foot-dragging National League” had finally agreed to expand from 10 to 12 teams. The American League had already decided to award new franchises to Seattle (the Pilots) and Kansas City (Royals). The leading candidates for National League franchises were San Diego (which wound up getting the Padres) and Dallas. Buffalo also was bidding for a team, as were Milwaukee, Toronto, Denver and the ultimate winner, Montreal.

Another news story told of a war of words between baseball’s owners and players. Players felt they deserved (surprise!) more money. They did have a point: The average salary in 1967 was $22,500. Some 40 percent of the game’s players were earning less than $15,000, and 6 percent of all big leaguers were making the minimum salary of $7,000. It wasn’t uncommon for major leaguers to work second jobs at the time.

As if those stories (and others) weren’t enough, the Dec. 16, 1967, TSN also included the second of a five-part excerpt from my favorite baseball book, Lawrence S. Ritter’s then-new The Glory of Their Times. (If you haven’t read this classic, find a copy; it’s must reading for fans of baseball history, offering wonderful anecdotes and recollections by early-20th-century baseball players interviewed by Ritter.)

In this excerpt, Detroit outfielder Sam Crawford told Ritter about the player he considered to be the best. “People always ask me about Ty Cobb, you know: ‘You played in the outfield next to Cobb for all those years. Don’t you agree that he was the greatest player who ever lived?’ Cobb was great, there’s no doubt about that; one of the greatest. But not the greatest. In my opinion, the greatest all-around player who ever lived was Honus Wagner . . . He could do everything.”

Now, we can argue all we want about early ballplayers we’ve never seen, maybe not even in film clips. But it’s impossible to argue with an assessment by a Hall of Famer who played against the game’s early legends.

The Compassionate Lombardi: I also picked up the Jan. 13, 1968 issue of TSN. The cover line reads, “Green Bay Gamblers… The Dice Came Seven.” Yep, that was the issue that reported on the great “Ice Bowl,” when Green Bay slipped past the Cowboys on Bart Starr’s quarterback sneak with 16 seconds left – a fourth-down gamble that, if it had failed, would have put Dallas in Super Bowl II.

A classic Lombardi quote appears in TSN’s coverage: “You want to know the real reason we went for the touchdown instead of the [potentially tying] field goal? Because I didn’t want all those freezing people up in the stands to have to sit through a sudden death overtime. I’ve been accused of lacking compassion, but that just goes to show I’m not without it.”

The same issue presented a host of college bowl recaps. One story, for example, lauded Penn State’s Joe Paterno for admitting he made a mistake when he took a Lombardi-like gamble in the Gator Bowl. Instead of kicking a field goal on a 4th-and-inches play at the 15-yard-line (which would have given Penn State a 20-0 lead over Florida State), he went for the first down. FSU didn’t budge and took over on downs – and then came roaring back to earn a 17-17 tie. Who knew that Paterno would still be coaching 44 years later, only to have his long run end in disgrace over his inaction in the Jack Sandusky controversy?

Family Affair: The April 6, 1968, issue of TSN captured Mickey Mantle, as photographed by Jay Spencer, in civvies along with his wife Merlyn and sons Mickey Jr., David, Billy and Danny. Inside is a sprawling five-page story by Jim Ogle, who reviewed Mantle’s desire to keep playing, even in pain.

“Watching Mantle hobble off the team bus reminds a viewer of an arthritic senior citizen,” Ogle wrote. “He enters the park, hits a homer, steals a base or somehow helps win a game. Then he climbs laboriously back on the bus for the return to the hotel – probably to soak his legs in a hot tub. That has happened so often it is almost normal now. ‘Mickey has a greater capacity to withstand pain than any man I’ve ever seen,’ said Yankee trainer Joe Soares. ‘Some of the things he has done while in great pain are absolutely unbelievable. Believe me, some doctors have seen X-rays of his legs and won’t believe they are the legs of an athlete still active.’ ”

Another story in the issue covers the remarkable improvement of Matty Alou. Alou went from the Giants to the Pirates as a career .260 hitter in 1965, but took the advice of former manager Harry Walker and started using the whole field rather than trying to pull every pitch. The result: Alou led the National League in hitting in 1966 (.342) and finished third in 1967 (.338). Alou died at age 73 on Nov. 3, 2011.

The Summer of ’69: The July 26, 1969, TSN cover featured hot-hitting Reggie Jackson, who had hit 35 home runs through July 13. Washington slugger Frank Howard was keeping pace with Jackson, prompting all kinds of talk about an assault on Roger Maris’ home run record.

Columnist Bob Addie, though, was unfazed by the home run pace, figuring Maris’ record would eventually fall anyway. So he offered this forecast, some 30 years before it happened. “Here’s a prediction: Some day somebody is going to hit 70 in a 162-game season. It’s the ball or the mound or the strike zone or something. Or maybe it’s the slugger himself.”

As it turned out, the key ingredients behind a new home run “record” would be the substances that sluggers put into and onto their bodies.

A few pages after Addie’s dead-on prediction, ironically, is a story on the Giants’ Bobby Bonds, one of baseball’s hottest prospects. “Nothing should stand in his way,” manager Clyde King said. “He could be a .300 hitter and play 15 years or more.” As it was, Bonds played 14 years and hit just .268, though he did have 332 homers and 461 steals. (The TSN story, by the way, made no mention of Bobby Bonds’ then-5-year-old son Barry.)
A bonus for autograph collectors also appeared in the issue: An eye-catching two-page Hillerich & Bradsby ad featuring reproductions of more than 200 autographs of players ranging from Jimmie Foxx to Frank Robinson.

Also worth noting is a page on the New York Mets, who looked like they could “remain a distinct threat to the division-leading Cubs,” wrote Jack Lang. The Mets were 5-1/2 games behind on July 15 but had just won a key three-game series vs. Chicago. “There’s a new hero every day and the Mets, by taking two out of three in their first big confrontation with the Cubs, seem likely to stay in the race all summer,” Lang wrote.

As it turned out, the team not only stayed in the race but won it. In the process, they “captivated the entire city,” as Lang said. Even Mrs. Babe Ruth was a fan. “I think they’re adorable,” she said. “I love every one of them. I cry when they lose and I laugh when they win.”

In NFL coverage, the July 26 issue noted that ex-Packer coach Lombardi was making a mark in training camp on his new team, “the downtrodden Redskins,” as writer Bob Oates put it. “I hope to be a winner here the first year,” Lombardi said. He delivered, leading the team to a 7-5-2 record. Sadly, though, he died of cancer (Sept. 3, 1970) before getting a chance to take the team further.

Quarterback Don Meredith had retired after the 1968 season, but Oates reported that he might turn up in 1969 with another team, possibly the Bears (it never happened). Dandy Don’s old team, Dallas, now had Craig Morton at quarterback, but sources in Dallas were predicting he’d be overtaken by a 27-year-old rookie, Roger Staubach. It would take a few seasons, but it did happen. Morton did have a 33-20-1 record as a starter in Dallas and brought the team to a Super Bowl, but by 1974, he was playing with the Giants.

Speaking of football, it turns out that 1969 was the year that football expunged a couple of longtime terms. Again, from Oates: “The pro leagues in their official reports this year have eliminated the terms ‘flanker’ and ‘split end.’ All those playing this position now are called wide receivers. The new abbreviation is WR.”

The reason? Writer Larry Felser explained it in the same issue. The change in semantics, he said, was because “almost all pro teams use their flankers and spit ends interchangeably.”

While the NFL was at it, league officials also began specifying defensive backs as cornerbacks or safeties.

Roberto and Henry: Two 1970 issues caught my eye for their outstanding covers. One of them was an Ozzie Sweet portrait of a reflective Roberto Clemente, the other a batting-pose portrait of Hank Aaron by Malcolm Emmons.

The Clemente issue (Feb. 28, 1970) noted the swirling rumors that CBS might be selling the Yankees. The talk was true; in 1972, George Steinbrenner would spend around $10 million to buy the Yankees. (The team is now worth $1.1 billion, according to Forbes.)
In the Aaron issue (May 23, 1970), Hammerin’ Hank talked about the hate mail he was receiving in which people called him racist names. ”He files that mail in a special place for keeps and shakes his head sadly and feels sorry for the sender, who, of course, never signs his name,” wrote Wayne Minshew.

Minshew also brought up a certain baseball record that some thought unbreakable. “He is already signed for next season and if things go right, he could hang around for a few more . . . if he has a good shot at Babe Ruth’s career home-run record of 714. ‘If I can have two good years and get close to 650 homers,’ said the 36-year-old Aaron, ‘I will hang around give Ruth’s record a shot . . . But I’m not going to try and fool myself . . . It’s tough, the way the game is played today.”

Aaron was tougher. He would hit 38 homers in 1970, followed by seasons of 47, 34 and 40, setting him up to break Ruth’s record in April 1974.

History lessons
There. I’ve summarized just six issues of The Sporting News – and believe me, that’s just a sampling. I’d love to share more, but I think you get the idea. Do some browsing in online auctions and you’ll find a nice selection of back issues, and any of them are worth a read.

Keep in mind that the condition of TSN back issues is rarely top-shelf. These were newsprint publications, after all, so you’ll find yellowing as well as brittleness. Plus, small tears on page edges aren’t unusual. And because copies of TSN from the 1960s and ’70s measured 11-1/2-by-15-1/2 inches, readers often folded them, so you’ll find creases either horizontally or vertically. But you can keep them from deteriorating further by storing them flat and in a dry room, out of the light.

One more thing. When I think back to those 1970s-era Sunday mornings when I’d study TSN page by page, there’s one thing I’d do differently. Yep, I’d take a closer look at the small ads in the back of each issue, get a loan from my dad, and buy up some complete Topps sets. Hobby retailers used to offer complete sets at minuscule prices. In the issues above, I saw 1968 baseball sets offered for $13.95 and 1967-68 hockey sets for $6.95. I saw sets of 1969 Topps football cards priced at $6.95 and sets of 1969-70 Topps basketball cards for, gulp, $4.95.

Imagine showing enough foresight (as certain early dealers and collectors did) to stock up on those factory-packed boxes and stashing them for a few decades. But, as we hear in almost every sports-related interview these days, it is what it is. For me, those Sunday morning memories are good enough.

Larry Canale is author of the book “Mickey Mantle: Memories & Memorabilia” (Krause, 2011) and editor-in-chief of “Antiques Roadshow Insider.” He also spent six years editing Tuff Stuff magazine and has authored two books with photographer Ozzie Sweet: “Mickey Mantle/The Yankee Years” (1998) and “The Boys of Spring” (2005). He can be reached at larrycanale@comcast.net.

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